When an Adjective Ruins a Noun

My emphasis:

“It was a very life-changing experience,” Mr. Dickerson said of his role in helping to save HealthCare.gov.

How Apple Uses Semantics to Enforce Brand Consistency

Have you ever noticed that Apple always refers to the iPad as “magical”? Or the App Store as “legendary”? Or the iPhone as “revolutionary”?

As the all-things-Apple blog, 9to5Mac, reports, these adjectives are enforced as part of Cupertino’s comprehensive, obsessive attention to detail. As a result, those “magical iPads” and “revolutionary iPhones” don’t just appear in Apple’s news releases, but also across the company’s marketing materials, internal presentations, and media events. In short: everything.

fav. fave

Welcome to the new “gif” vs. “jif” debate.

This Is the Voice You Need if You Want to Write for Gawker

Written in 2008, this internal memo from Valleywager Paul Boutin holds up remarkably well today.

If someone screwed up in business, find something nice to say about them: “The charmingly incompetent CEO.” If someone succeeded, find a way to slap them. “The wildly successful blowhard.” Denton says this is a key to Gawker posts about people, and when he got lazy he slipped on it and readers noticed in a roundabout way that the site felt less brilliant.

Write about Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive rather than “Apple” as an actor. Or find out who their VP of sales is if they’ve had a wildly successful quarter and credit him/her, a nice detail. I don’t want to read that the Zune is a flop, I want to read that Wink Twinkerton, head of the Zune division, has done for portable music players what Bill Gates did for CEO sex appeal.

Calling Ron Paul a loon isn’t edgy. Much better was “voting for Ron Paul sends a message. The message is you’re crazy and hate the FDA.” That’s a nice setup and punch line, and a good non-cliche detail rather than an unspecific “loon.”

If someone whose politics or opinions you disagree with says something you want to call out, don’t do a straight-ahead criticism. Instead, take their argument further to a simple but ridiculous conclusion. When Hillary Clinton proposed a moratorium on home foreclosures and a freeze on loan rates, Jordan Golson asked, “Why not a moratorium on people paying their mortgages? That seems easier.”

You’ve wrung this out of them mostly, but I still see the young ones do the old-school Ann Coulter/Molly Ivins thing of insulting someone three times in a paragraph when once would be better. Pick the one best dig and save the others for another time.

If someone says several stupid things in one piece, just quote them and don’t rebut each line separately. Do a 100-word version with only the dumbest parts. Readers will get it.

Avoid journalist-speak like “He takes umbrage with our statement.” You never say umbrage in real life.

Some, many, few ... these are journalist numbers for when they want to imply a trend. Often they’re used to overstate the number of people who do or don’t do something. “Some feel that Obama ...” Cut that, and instead give me a specific quote from a linkable person that sums up the general mood you’re talking about.

We’ve slipped on that. Too many jokes comes across as not having enough to report. Keep the post short and move onto the next one.

Surprise readers by quitting on a review or report halfway through it, once you know you’ve hit the hight points already. Find some reason to explain your exit. Melissa Gira Grant started to summarize the SF Bay Guardian’s annual sex guide, but when she got to a piece that was restaurant suggestions, she wrote, “I stopped reading here.” It keeps posts short, and breaks the mold of the reviewer who takes 400 words to wind down.

Should be used to illustrate someone’s foibles. E.g. “President Steve Jobs issues the most expensive U.S. budget ever, but it fits in a manila envelope.”

Douche, douchebag, douchery, asshat. TechCrunch uses them, need I say more. (To which I’ll add: “teh,” “intarwebs,” “lulz.”)

Why We Should Celebrate Doublespeak

“There are all kinds of situations in which this sort of double meaning comes in handy. You don’t really find my joke funny, but you don’t want to hurt my feelings? Fav it; I’ll interpret it as a hearty LOL.

“You want to kiss up to a superior who keeps posting banal New Age quotations? Fav her; you can always plausibly deny any sycophancy to your colleagues, because a fav doesn’t mean anything.

“You may wonder why should we celebrate doublespeak. The body language analogy is useful here. Shrugs, grunts, winks, nods, squints, eyebrow tilts—these are undefined signals, little human gestures that suggest some meaning. They’re powerful because they’re intentional, but also because they’re ambiguous.

“Sometimes body language hides more than it says. But we use our bodies to do some of the talking because maintaining civility and good feelings is often necessary; for the sake of everyone, you don’t say every honest thought that pops into your head.

“Twitter’s fav acquired its power only by happenstance. In its early days, the service never defined what the ‘favorite’ button was for, leaving people free to find creative ways to use it.

“The history of the fav should serve as a model for the many new chat apps popping up: They should resist overdefining every feature or making every action a signal in some kind of learning algorithm. They should add in a few extra user-interface elements that do nothing at all.

“At first, people will wonder what they’re for. In time, they may come to develop a completely new way of connecting.


If JFK Had Been a CEO Instead of a President, Here’s How His Moon Speech Would Have Sounded

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an immediately famous call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”

As Chip and Dan Heath point out, had Kennedy been a CEO, his words would have become insufferably stilted and drained of their vitality. He would have said something like, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”

What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Such a Wonderful Writer?

Consider this passage from Gladwell’s book Outliers:

The “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. They’re not as smart. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some ways, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out neither of those explanations rings true.

As English professor Rob Jenkins points out, in less than 100 words, Gladwell accomplishes four major feats of writing that make you want to continue reading:

1. He varies sentence length to create a subtle sense of pace.

2. He smoothes out the rough edges of the sentences through liberal use of contractions (generally considered a no-no in academic prose).

3. He only addresses readers directly, but also includes us in the discussion (“our schools,” “we … aren’t”).

4. He uses simple, everyday words when such words carry the desired meaning, while not altogether avoiding longer words (like “phenomenon”) when needed. (“Simple,” in this case, does not mean “simplistic.”)

“Granted, Gladwell is one of the very best writers working today,” Jenkins concludes. “But isn’t that exactly what we ought to be teaching our students—what the best writers do?”

How Do You Concretize 37 Grams of Fat?

A memorable story from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007):

Art Silverman stared at a bag of movie popcorn. It looked out of place sitting on his desk. His office had long since filled up with fake-butter fumes. Silverman knew, because of his organization’s research, that the popcorn on his desk was unhealthy. Shockingly unhealthy, in fact. His job was to figure out a way to communicate this message to the unsuspecting moviegoers of America.

Silverman worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit group that educates the public about nutrition. The CSPI sent bags of movie popcorn from a dozen theaters in three major cities to a lab for nutritional analysis. The results surprised everyone.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that a normal diet contain no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. According to the lab results, the typical bag of popcorn had 37 grams.

The culprit was coconut oil, which theaters used to pop their popcorn. Coconut oil had some big advantages over other oils. It gave the popcorn a nice, silky texture, and released a more pleasant and natural aroma than the alternative oils. Unfortunately, as the lab results showed, coconut oil was also brimming with saturated fat.

The single serving of popcorn on Silverman’s desk—a snack someone might scarf down between meals—had nearly two days’ worth of saturated fat. And those 37 grams of saturated fat were packed into a medium-sized serving of popcorn. No doubt a decent-sized bucket could have cleared triple digits.

The challenge, Silverman realized, was that few people know what “37 grams of saturated fat” means. Most of us don’t memorize the USDA’s daily nutrition recommendations. Is 37 grams good or bad? And even if we have an intuition that it’s bad, we’d wonder if it was “bad bad” (like cigarettes) or “normal bad” (like a cookie or a milk shake).

Even the phrase “37 grams of saturated fat” by itself was enough to cause most people’s eyes to glaze over. “Saturated fat has zero appeal,” Silverman says. “It’s dry, it’s academic, who cares?”

Silverman could have created some kind of visual comparison— perhaps an advertisement comparing the amount of saturated fat in the popcorn with the USDA’s recommended daily allowance. Think of a bar graph, with one of the bars stretching twice as high as the other.

But that was too scientific somehow. Too rational. The amount of fat in this popcorn was, in some sense, not rational. It was ludicrous. The CSPI needed a way to shape the message in a way that fully communicated this ludicrousness.

Silverman came up with a solution.

CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here’s the message it presented: “A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings—combined!”

The folks at CSPI didn’t neglect the visuals—they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day’s worth of unhealthy eating, displayed on a table. All that saturated fat—stuffed into a single bag of popcorn.

The story was an immediate sensation, featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It made the front pages of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post’s Style section. Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about fat-soaked popcorn, and headline writers trotted out some doozies: “Popcorn Gets an ‘R’ Rating,” “Lights, Action, Cholesterol!” “Theater Popcorn Is Double Feature of Fat.”

The idea stuck. Moviegoers, repulsed by these findings, avoided popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. The service staff at movie houses grew accustomed to fielding questions about whether the popcorn was popped in the “bad” oil. Soon after, most of the nation’s biggest theater chains—including United Artists, AMC, and Loews—announced that they would stop using coconut oil.

Editors’ Endless Editing

“Go find a story published a few years ago in the , perhaps America’s most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it’s a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story—well-polished diamond that it presumably is—and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process. You will find, once again, that the new editor has changes in mind. If you were a masochist, you could continue this process indefinitely. You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, ‘Looks fine. This story is perfect.’ This is because editing is an art, not a science. To imagine that more editors will produce a better story is akin to imagining that a song by your favorite band would be better if, after the band finished it, it was remixed by a succession of ten producers, one after the other. Would it be different? Yes. Would it be better? I doubt it. The only thing you can be sure of is that it would not be the song that the actual musicians wanted it to be.”

Hamilton Nolan

Sounding Smart Is Not the Same Thing As Being Smart

“College students—and, after they graduate, many working adults—have been socialized to believe they must ‘sound smart’ when they write—that is, that their regular inner monologue is not smart enough. So when they read advanced, specialized writing and don’t understand it, they understandably equate completely incomprehensible with intelligent ... What they don’t realize is that the smartest people express difficult concepts in everyday prose ... None other than Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about mind-shreddingly difficult concepts in sparse, crystal-clear prose, and insisted: ‘Anything that can be said, can be said clearly.’”

Rebecca Schuman

Related: Are Liberal Ideas Harder to Communicate?

Do You Like Words? Prove It!

When copywriter Robert Pirosh landed in Hollywood in 1934, eager to become a screenwriter, he wrote and sent the following letter to all the directors, producers, and studio executives he could think of. The approach worked, and after securing three interviews he took a job as a junior writer with MGM. Pirosh went on to write for the Marx Brothers, and in 1949 won an Academy Award for his Battleground script.

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demimonde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh

So, to recap:

Description of Word
Example #1
Example #2
Example #3
Example #4
fat, buttery
solemn, angular, creaky
spurious, black-is-white
suave “V”
crunchy, brittle, crackly
sullen, crabbed, scowling
oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake
elegant, flowery
wormy, squirmy, mealy
sniggly, chuckling

Why Most Business Writing Is So Bad

Way back in 1946, George Orwell translated a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes into what he called “modern English.”

Here’s the original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And here’s the revision:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Is it me, or does the latter remind you of the jargon-laced drivel that increasingly emanates from every crevice of corporate America today?

Everything You Need to Know About Writing, You Can Learn From This One List

  • Tell it to “Mom.”
  • Slow down the pace of information.
  • Introduce new characters or difficult concepts one at a time.
  • Recognize the value of repetition.
  • Don’t clutter leads.
  • Use simple sentences.
  • Remember numbers can be numbing.
  • Think graphics.
  • Translate jargon.
  • Use analogies.
  • Look for the human side.
  • Develop a chronology.
  • Reward the reader.
  • Announce difficult concepts.
  • Cut unnecessary information.
  • Compile lists.

A New Explanatory Journalism Can Be Built on a Strong Foundation

How to Talk About Prison

From Netflix’s sponsored article in the New York Times:

Dont Say
Instead, Say
blocks or walks
pods or wings
shake down
safety check
lug her
take her to a secure area or document an infraction

How to Talk About Global Warming

Don’t Say
Instead, Say
Carbon pollution
Greenhouse gases
Impact on the climate
Impact on people
Impact on the environment
Impact on people
The environment
The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink
Carbon tax
Making polluters pay and putting a price on pollution
Emissions trading scheme
Making polluters pay and putting a price on pollution
Cap and trade
Making polluters pay and putting a price on pollution
Rising sea levels
Extreme weather causing more hurricanes, floods, and wildfires
Rising temperatures
Extreme weather causing more hurricanes, floods, and wildfires
Renewable energy
Clean energy
Parts per million
Pollution is getting worse
Polar bears

Source: Jeremy Porter

When Regulators “Crack Down,” That Means Reporters Have Let Their Guard Down

A memo from the Journal’s Deputy Editor in Chief Matt Murray:

In a regulatory era, we naturally find ourselves writing a fair bit about regulators, probes and regulatory issues. That’s a big source of news these days.

But when we do so, it is vital that we write in neutral terms and that we don’t take sides with either regulators or their targets, either willfully or implicitly through language choices. It is important on every such story to ensure we think through the dynamics on all sides and convey the facts as directly, clearly and objectively as possible, to make sure that as writers and editors we are in no way tilting toward one view. Adding to the complexity, there is sometimes a sourcing imbalance, and we must do all we can in articles to correct any such imbalance, make sure all parties comment and treat all assertions with appropriate caveats and skepticism.

A particular trap in the very construction of many such stories is the often inadvertent implication that regulators are correcting/fixing/addressing what is objectively seen—or should be seen—as an existing problem. Be aware that in many instances there is a range of opinion on what constitute problems and what constitutes an appropriate response, and we should vigilant about the difference between facts and assertions. We should always strive to report the facts of what is happening, aggressively, while we attribute assertions and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

As always, sensitivity to the meaning and use of words is important, especially in our standing effort to eliminate newspaper clich├ęs, since words do carry connotations we may not intend. For instance, when an agency “cracks down” on something, the words suggest they are rolling up their sleeves and cleaning up an existing, generally acknowledged problem. Better to say “focusing on” or “paying increased attention to.”

This can be tricky stuff, but that’s why it’s so important. Our readers depend on us to be factual, neutral and to play it straight. As always, the best test is to ask yourself how a passage would read from various angles.

There’s No Such Thing As a “Styrofoam Cup”

So says Dow Chemical, which owns the Styrofoam trademark:

Most foam cups are made out of expanded polystyrene, a type of plastic. But Styrofoam is made with extruded polystyrene, which is both better at insulation and moisture resistance, Dow says. Styrofoam is used for Dow’s branded building products, including rigid foam building insulation—but never for cups.

“enormity” does not mean “big”

A helpful reminder from the Journal:

We should all remember the enormity of misusing enormity, which means great evil or outrageousness in addition to size, not great size. The correct word for size is enormousness, but that can look clunky, so another choice is immensity. Or simply say size. Or great size.

Our New Favorite LinkedIn Group

Those who know me know what I think of LinkedIn Groups: they’re mostly cesspools of self-promotion. Happily, a new group for language lovers, Clearly Ambiguous, which is hosted by Sprachgefuhl friend, Paul Stregevsky, bucks this trend. Here’s its description:

Do you notice two meanings when others notice only one? Do your teeth clench when you read an ambiguous word or phrase; struggle to make sense of an ambiguous symbol, sign, or form; or hear an ambiguous pronunciation, inflection, or usage? Here’s where you can blow off steam among friends.

Check it out!

How to Turn an Awful Sentence Into a Crystal-Clear One

In the 1970s, a frustrated reader handed Roy Peter Clark an editorial that contained this daunting sentence:

“To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensations, working conditions and pensions.”

Clark translates this as follows:

“The state of New York often passes laws telling local government what to do. These laws have a name. They are called ‘state mandates.’ On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local government for some of these so-called mandates.”


1. The reader benefits from shorter words and phrases.

2. The reader benefits from simple sentences.

Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

YouTube. Youtube. BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed

blog. blog post.

Last year, Forrest Wickman articulated one of my longstanding pet peeves: the conflation of “blog”and “blog post.”

No matter what dictionary you check—online, Urban, or otherwise—you will find no definition of blog that means blog post. Saying one to mean the other is like saying magazine when you mean article. The listener or reader may get your drift eventually, but only after they’ve been thrown for a loop.

He followed-up last week with a taunt to Gawker's Tom Scocca:

Go ahead and call a blog post a blog. You’ll only sound like the most clueless person on the Internets.

social media. digital media

“Social media” pertains to social networks like Facebook.

“Digital media” pertains to advertising on those networks.

The ROI of Copyediting

Not much, says former ReadWrite editor, Abraham Hyatt:

It would be groundbreaking, I thought, to bring that kind of quality to tech blogging. And a few years later, I had the chance to do it. I found two very talented editors who worked from morning Eastern time to late afternoon Pacific time. Every story went through them before being published. They were fantastic.

They also slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt. And, even more importantly: No. One. Cared.

Hiring them was part of a larger, and ultimately failed, experiment to bring magazine-style editing and quality control to tech blogging. We would write fewer, better stories. Our copy would gleam. Readers would swoon.

It was a train wreck. Traffic plummeted. By half. Literally, month-to-month traffic cut in half. As we tried to right the sinking ship the first thing I did was fire the copyeditors. During the eight-or-so months they worked for us no one had ever commented on our clean copy. No one told us they came to our site because we had fewer typos than TechCruch. I saw the difference. It’s not that readers didn’t, they just didn’t care.

Counterargument, by former copy editor Fred Vultee, here.

Why I Use the Serial Comma

Eric Wemple sets the context (link added):

It’s a law of human reading nature that our eyes skip ahead on the page, looking for signposts. When lists surface on the page, the reader wants to know right away how exhaustive it is. Serial comma to the rescue.

Mignon Fogarty renders the argument:

Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read.

curation. aggregation

curation: stories collected by a person (e.g., Best of the Web Today, the Slatest)

aggregation: stories collected by a robot (e.g., InstaRank, Google News)

Has "Curate" Replaced "Aggregate" As the Default Term for Summarizing Other People’s News? [Poynter]

Here’s Hoping David Pogue’s Allergy to Jargon Is Contagious

Don’t Say
Instead, Say
price point
form factor
copy protection


How You Say It Is As Important As What You Say

Nancy Gibbs on Pope Francis:

He has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music. Tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols—bread and wine, body and blood—so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices­ as gestures empty of the force of law.

Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias:

Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions.


verb (v):  to describe an action taken in social media as a concise verb

Google says nothing about the search engine’s purpose, but it’s easy and fun to say, and eminently verbable.”

Instagram’s New Private-Messaging Feature Is Tragically Unverbable [Slate]

How Facebook Uses Semantics

The Atlantic:

They even take care not to create any emotional friction as you enter your life details into Facebook. One fantastic example that Dougherty-Wold gave me was adding a “life event” on Timeline. “There’s a menu of those events and a typical menu would list the options alphabetically,” she said, “but if we did, you’d have divorce sitting on top of engagement. The content strategist who worked on that menu had a tremendous amount of empathy.” The list was reordered to follow the arc of a relationship. “Just by not making you think about divorce at the same time that you’re thinking about engagement,” she concluded, “we’re getting out of your way.”

many. much

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Mr. DiPascali faces as many as 125 years in prison.

No he doesn’t. He faces as much or as long as 125 years. The use of many implies an integer metric and prison sentences are most definitely not limited to an integer number of years.

Style and Substance [WSJ]

Wal-Mart or Walmart?

“We use Wal-Mart Stores (that company’s legal and stock name) even after it starting putting a Walmart logo on the storefronts.”

Style and Substance [WSJ]

The Top 10 Most Overused Buzzwords on LinkedIn in 2013

Let the year-end listicles commence!

Do You Really Write Need to Write 25 Headlines for Each Article?

Yes, sir, says Upworthy’s top curator.

The key is not to make every sentence perfect—20 of the 25 headlines will be junk—but to force you out of the box.

15 Secrets to Make Your Headline Go Viral

From Upworthy’s top curator:

  1. Tell a story in your headline, but don’t give it all away. (This is what makes us so successful, though some people really hate it.)
  2. If you’ve got some heroes and villains, play them off each other.
  3. To optimize shareability you want to make sure everyone can feel comfortable sharing it. Think to yourself, “Would my mom share this headline?” If not, do something different. Unless you are only targeting a subgroup and don’t care about shareability.
  4. Don’t depress people so much that they want to give up on humanity. Negative headlines breeds negative shares.
  5. Don’t curse in your headlines. Moms hate it—and moms are the biggest sharers on the Internet by a significant margin.
  6. Don’t make people take positions they might be uncomfortable with. For example, “I Really Hate All White People” is going to not get shared, whereas “An Open Letter to Pasty People” is far less hostile and more likely to get shared.
  7. Don’t use terms that overwhelm, polarize or bore people. I never use Social Security, the Environment, Immigration, Democrats, Republicans, Medicare, Racist, Bigot, etc... You can talk about issues without giving away what they are. Most people aren’t going to want to look at a Immigration video. Once they get to your site and hit play, they may reconsider. (Though immigration is particularly challenging.)
  8. Don’t be shrill and judgy; let the facts speak for themselves. Anytime I’ve made that mistake, the content dies a horrible death. An example: when Todd Akin came out with the cartoonishly awful idea that women’s bodies stop them from getting pregnant from rape, I started with the headline, “Meet Todd Akin. He’s a Horrible Human Being. Share This So Everyone Knows.” No one clicked or shared. When I changed it to “A Congressman on a Science Committee Doesn’t Understand How Science Works” it did waaaay better with people across the political spectrum. Because people didn’t have to be afraid of sounding partisan.
  9. Don’t oversell. We’ve worked hard to tone ourselves down, as occasionally our headlines would veer toward THE BIGGEST THING EVER, when it was actually THE PRETTY INTERESTING BUT NOT BIGGEST THING EVER. It’s not worth dragging people to your site if they feel ripped off after they get there.
  10. Don’t be afraid to talk like a human. People like human conversation.
  11. Don’t make obscure pop culture references. 90% of Americans has never seen half the shows you’re referencing. Instead of “Jennifer Lawrence Talks About What It’s Like to Be Judged,” try “That Lady From the Hunger Games.” Nobody knows who your favorite character is played by.
  12. Always test. No matter how clever you think your headline is.
  13. Speaking of which, don’t be too clever. People won’t get it and they won’t click and then you lose.
  14. Have fun. Dry headlines bore people.
  15. Always write 25 headlines. Or the terrorists will win.

Can You Guess Which Headline Will Do the Best?

  1. It’s Kind Of Awkward When The Commander Of A Starship Makes Me Cry, Yet Here We Are
  2. Patrick Stewart’s Passion And Care For His Fans Boils Over Into A Heart-Wrenching And Wonderful Answer
  3. A Fan Asked Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn’t Always Get. His Answer Was One That I’ve Never Seen Anything Like Since.
  4. Some Actors Like Talking To Their Fans. Patrick Stewart, However, Goes The Extra Lightyear
  5. Patrick Stewart Isn’t Only A Starfleet Commander. He’s Also A Friggin Amazing Human Being.
  6. I’ve Never Cried Watching SciFi Actors Answering Fans Questions Before. CURSE YOU, PATRICK STEWART!
  7. Patrick Stewart Hears Some Pain In A Fan’s Voice And Takes His Compassion To Warp 10
  8. Patrick Stewart Is Space Captain Ever. Nay, The Best Human Being Ever.
  9. If You Don’t Like SciFi, This Will Make You Cry. Same If You Do Like SciFi.
  10. I Was Unaware Starfleet Captains Could Make Grown Men Openly Weep, Yet Here We Are
  11. This Man Commanded A Starship, Was A Member Of The Royal Shakespeare Company, And Just Made Me Cry At A Nerd Convention
  12. A Bunch Of SciFi Geeks Went To A Convention To Ask Their Heroes Questions. So Why Am I Crying About It?
  13. I’m Not Supposed To Cry Watching SciFi Geeks Ask Actors Questions, Yet Here We Are
  14. A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn’t Usually Get And Is Given A Beautiful Answer
  15. The Time I Really Felt Like Giving Patrick Stewart A Giant Hug For Being A Wonderful Human Being
  16. I Don’t Know About You, But I DO NOT CRY Watching Star Trek. Yet Here We Are.
  17. I’m Not Crying. That’s Just Space Rain On My Face.
  18. That Time You Wished Patrick Stewart Was Your Dad
  19. MUST WATCH: Patrick Stewart Is An Incredible Human Being. Seriously.

Answer here.

Most People Are Tactical Editors. Here’s How to Be a Strategic Editor

Don’t just cut words; cut sentiments. Don’t just make your text shorter; make it more focused.

Here’s how the Post's Carlos Lozada frames the issue:

The writer in me desires what the editor in me cannot abide. I treasure every precious construction, every not-so-clever aside. (Like this one.) So the cuts I make to my own drafts are marginal. I compress rather than select; shake, never prune. Until another editor does it for me.

like farming

like farming (v): to engender an overly emotional response and thus induce lots of people to click on Facebook’s “like” button

For example:

  • Click “like” if you love Jesus.
  • Click “like” if you support the troops.
  • Click “like” if you think this tragically disfigured burn victim is still beautiful.
  • Click “like” if you have a heart, care even a little, love puppies, and aren’t a selfish evil jerk.

Merlin German was a U.S, soldier injured in a IED attack in Iraq. He died in 2008, but his photo has been used by many Facebook like-farming campaigns.

Click “Like” if You Love Puppies, Support the Troops, and Hate Your Facebook Friends [VentureBeat]

How Many of These Cliches Do You Use?

Carlos Lorzada:

  • Literally
  • Kingmaker
  • The [anything] community
  • Inside the Beltway
  • Demurred
  • It’s the [anything], stupid
  • Redux
  • That’s just [person’s name] being [person’s name]
  • It is what it is
  • Political theater
  • Part and parcel
  • Main Street vs. Wall Street
  • At first glance
  • As a society (or “as a nation”)
  • Observers
  • TK is not alone
  • Pundits say (or “critics say”)
  • The American people (unless in a quote)
  • The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)
  • Probe (as substitute for “investigation”)
  • A rare window (unless we’re talking about a real window that is in fact rare)
  • Begs the question (unless used properly—and so rarely used properly that not worth it)
  • Be that as it may
  • It is important to note that
  • Needless to say
  • [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0 . . .)
  • At a crossroads
  • TK is a favorite Washington parlor game
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a TK
  • Underscored
  • Midwife (as a verb that does not involve childbirth)
  • Call it TK
  • Pity the poor TK
  • Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
  • It’s the TK, stupid
  • Palpable sense of relief
  • Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)
  • The Other
  • Effort (as a verb)
  • Gestalt/Zeitgeist
  • Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn’t noticed it)
  • he [anything] community
  • Hastily convened
  • Ignominious end
  • Tightly knit community
  • In the final analysis
  • At the end of the day
  • Literally (unless quoting Vice President Biden)
  • Ultimately (especially as first word of last graf)
  • Redux
  • Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it rose a long time ago)
  • Remains to be seen
  • Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy
  • Double down
  • [Anything]-gate
  • Dons the mantle of
  • Political theater
  • Hot-button issue
  • Face-saving compromise
  • The argument goes (or its cousin, “the thinking goes”)
  • Shutter (as a verb)
  • Part and parcel
  • Demurred
  • It is what it is
  • The new normal
  • Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
  • Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
  • Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely)
  • Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are grizzled—unless they are “seasoned”)
  • Manicured lawns (in journalism, all nice lawns are manicured)
  • Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
  • Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
  • Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
  • Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids are predawn)
  • Sparked debate (or “raised questions”)
  • Ironic Capitalizations Implying Unimportance of Things Others Consider Important
  • Provides fresh details
  • But reality/truth is more complicated (oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
  • Scarred by war
  • Main Street vs. Wall Street
  • Shines a spotlight on (unless there is a real spotlight that really shines)
  • TK is no panacea (nothing is)
  • No silver bullet
  • Shifting dynamics
  • Situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  • Partisans on both sides
  • Charm offensive
  • Pushback
  • Going forward
  • Stinging rebuke
  • Mr. TK goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)
  • The proverbial TK (“proverbial” doesn’t excuse the cliche, just admits you used it knowingly)
  • Fevered speculation
  • Oft-cited
  • Iconic
  • Growing body of evidence (in journalism, no bodies of evidence ever shrink)
  • Increasingly (unless we prove in the story that something is in fact increasing)
  • Tapped (as substitute for “selected” or “appointed”)
  • Any “not un-” formulation (as in “not unsurprising”)
  • There, I said it (more self-important than “voicey”)
  • To be sure

Addendum (5/15/2014): How about these (also from Lorzada)?

  • At first glance (or worse, “at first blush”)
  • As a nation (or worse, “as a society”)
  • Upon deeper reflection (why not reflect deeply from the start?)
  • Observers (unless referring to people actually sitting around watching something)
  • [Person] is not alone (from anecdote to generalization, we get it)
  • And [someone/something] is no exception
  • Pundits say
  • Critics say (or “critics are quick to point out”)
  • The American people (unless in a quote)
  • The narrative (unless referring to a style of writing)
  • Probe (an uncomfortable substitute for “investigation”)
  • Opens/offers a rare window (unless it is a real window that is in fact unusual)
  • Begs the question (unless used properly – and so rarely used properly that it’s not worth the trouble)
  • Be that as it may
  • If you will (actually, I won’t)
  • A cautionary tale
  • Needless to say (then don’t say it)
  • Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)
  • This is not your father’s [anything]
  • [Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)
  • At a crossroads (unless referring to an actual intersection)
  • The powers that be
  • Outside the box (describes creative thinking — with a cliche)
  • A favorite Washington parlor game
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a [something]
  • Christmas came early for [someone]
  • Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)
  • Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)
  • Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)
  • Cue the [something]
  • Call it [something]
  • Pity the poor [something]
  • It’s the [something], stupid
  • Imagine (as the first word in your lede)
  • Time will tell if [something]
  • Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)
  • Plenty of blame to go around
  • Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)
  • Turned a blind eye
  • Underscores
  • Cycle of violence (unless referring to a particularly vicious Schwinn)
  • Searing indictment
  • Famously (if readers know it, you don’t need to tell them it is famous; if they don’t know it, you just made them feel stupid)
  • The Other (or “otherize,” “otherization” and other variations)
  • Effort (as a verb)
  • Table (as a verb, as in “table the talks”)
  • Shutter (as a verb, as in “they shuttered the factory”)
  • Gestalt/Zeitgeist
  • Orwellian (unless discussing George Orwell)
  • Machiavellian (unless discussing Niccolo Machiavelli)
  • Gladwellian (never)
  • What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]
  • Oft-cited
  • Little-noticed
  • Closely watched
  • Hastily convened
  • Much ballyhooed
  • Shrouded in secrecy
  • Since time immemorial
  • Tipping point
  • Inflection point
  • Point of no return
  • The [anything] community
  • The devil is in the details
  • A ragtag army (or ragtag militia)
  • A tale of two [anything]
  • Ignominious end
  • Tightly knit (unless referring to actual knitting)
  • In the final analysis (especially as beginning of a final sentence/paragraph)
  • Ultimately (same as above)
  • For all intents and purposes
  • At the end of the day (same as above)
  • Who lost [insert country here]?
  • Punditocracy
  • Twitterati
  • Commentariat
  • Chattering classes
  • Naysayers
  • Took to Twitter
  • Tongues wagging
  • White-shoe law firm
  • Well-heeled lobbyists
  • Skittish donors
  • Byzantine rules (unless referring to the empire in the Middle Ages)
  • Rise of the 24-hour news cycle (it’s been a while)
  • In the digital age (again, it’s been a while)
  • Not so fast
  • Remains to be seen
  • Tenuous at best
  • Woefully inadequate
  • Or so it seems
  • Depending on whom you ask
  • Burst onto the national political scene
  • For now (especially at the end of a sentence set off by a dash; all it does is negate everything that ame before)
  • Tectonic shifts or seismic shifts (unless real ones)
  • Feeding frenzy/feeding the frenzy
  • Double down
  • Game-changer
  • [Anything]-gate (especially if you’re writing in The Washington Post)
  • In the wake of [anything]
  • How I learned to stop worrying and love the [anything]
  • Don the mantle of [anything]
  • Usher in an era of [anything]
  • A portrait emerges
  • In a nutshell
  • The social fabric (or “the very fabric of our democracy/nation/society”)
  • Hot-button issue
  • Perfect storm
  • Face-saving compromise
  • Eye-popping
  • The argument goes
  • The thinking goes
  • Contrary to popular belief
  • Intoned
  • The new normal
  • The talk of the town (unless referring to the New Yorker section)
  • It couple (or “power couple”)
  • Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)
  • Unlikely revolutionary (in journalism, all revolutionaries are unlikely)
  • Unlikely reformer (in journalism, all reformers are unlikely, too)
  • Grizzled veteran (in journalism, all veterans are either grizzled or “seasoned”)
  • Manicured lawns (in journalism, all lawns are manicured)
  • Wide-ranging interview (in journalism, all interviews range widely, even if they don’t)
  • Rose from obscurity (in journalism, all rises are from obscurity)
  • Dizzying array (in journalism, all arrays make one dizzy)
  • Withering criticism (in journalism, all criticism is withering)
  • Predawn raid (in journalism, all raids take place in the predawn hours)
  • Nondescript office building (in journalism, all office buildings are nondescript)
  • Unsung hero (in journalism, all heroes lack music)
  • Sparked debate
  • Raised questions
  • Raises more questions than answers
  • Raise the specter of [anything]
  • More often than not
  • hand-wringing
  • Ironic Capitalization Implying the Unimportance of Things Others Consider Important
  • But reality/truth is more complicated (in journalism, we oversimplify, then criticize the oversimplification)
  • Scarred by war (unless referring to real scars)
  • War-torn
  • War of words (worse if followed by “is heating up”)
  • Trading barbs
  • Shines a spotlight on [something] (unless there is a real spotlight that is shining)
  • [Something] is no panacea
  • [Something] is no silver bullet
  • Political football
  • Political theater
  • More than you think (how do you know what I think?)
  • Less than you think (how do you know what I think?)
  • Not as much as you think (how do you know what I think?)
  • You guessed it (how do you know what I guessed?)
  • Shifting dynamics (code for “don’t hold me to this”)
  • The situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  • Partisans on both sides
  • Charm offensive
  • Fallen on hard times
  • On thin ice
  • Poster child
  • Going forward
  • Creature of Washington
  • Official Washington
  • A modest proposal (this was written once, very well, and has been written terribly ever since)
  • Stinging rebuke
  • Mr. [Anyone] goes to Washington (unless a reference to the actual movie)
  • The proverbial [something] (Tacking this in front of a cliche doesn’t excuse it, just admits you used it knowingly)
  • Fevered speculation
  • Iconic
  • How did we get here? (code for “here comes the b-matter”)
  • But first, some background (code for “I know more than you do”)
  • Growing body of evidence
  • [Anything] on steroids (unless you cover professional sports)
  • Resists easy classification/categorization
  • Increasingly (unless story proves something is in fact increasing)
  • Tapped (as substitute for “selected” or “appointed)
  • Any “not-un” formulation (as in “not unsurprising that you’d use that cliche”)
  • Wait for it
  • There, I said it
  • And here’s the kicker
  • See what I did there?

Addendum (7/11/2014): The fun continues!

You Can't Spell "Numbers" Without "Numb"

Mike Long is one of the best writers I have the pleasure of reading. His latest e-newsletter is worth reprinting in full.

Numbers don’t mean anything unless you put them in human terms.

The cold precision of numbers is, to most readers, just that: cold. The vast majority of people don’t like numbers, don’t understand numbers, aren’t good with numbers, and wear their number-phobia with pride.

But as writers, the number problem we need to deal with most often isn’t the reader’s inability to divide the check three ways at dinner. The real problem is not knowing what numbers amount to in real-world terms. The United States federal budget is about $4 trillion. That sounds like a big number, but how big? The average reader has literally no idea.

How many thousands of dollars are in a million? How many millions are in a billion? How many billions in a trillion? Everybody’s lost. When we write or say $4 trillion, it impresses only because of the intimidating feeling we associate with big numbers. A good writer knows this and addresses it.

What’s the fix? Put big numbers in human terms.

For instance, a little division produces this nugget: $4 trillion in spending amounts to spending about $11 billion a day, every day. That’s a little easier to imagine, but few people really know how much a billion is, either. Dig deeper.

$4 trillion a year is about $500 million an hour. That’s more familiar, but not much. Keep going.

It’s also $7.5 million a minute—closer, but eh. I don’t really know what $7.5 million is like, do you?

But if you do the division one more time, we strike gold: $4 trillion comes down to $127,000 in spending every second. That’s a number I “get.”

If I tell you the government spends $4 trillion a year, well, you’re impressed (or worried) in a vague sort of way. But if I tell you that the government spends $127,000 a second every hour… of every day… of every year—now I have your attention.

And the real-world comparisons start writing themselves:

In one second, the federal government spends what two typical American families earn in an entire year.

Every two seconds, the federal government spends enough money to buy the average house—that’s your 30-year mortgage paid off in less time than it takes to breathe in.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence out loud, the federal government spent enough money to buy about half the homes on your block.

Every six weeks, the federal government spends enough money to buy Apple, the most valuable public company in America.

Five more weeks of spending and it could also buy ExxonMobil.

Another five and they—rather, you—have paid for Google, too.

Get the idea?

Cranking down numbers into familiar comparisons elicits something far more valuable than the typical “gee whiz” you’ve been settling for.

(By the way, it’s not hard to do the math. Just type it into your calculator, or even into Google: 4 trillion divided by 365—that gives you dollars per day. Divide that by 24 to get dollars per hour. Divide that by 60 to get dollars per minute. See?)

Your writing has value only if you are providing something the reader does not know. So do some homework—put in effort that the reader has not or will not. Otherwise you’re just spouting uninformed opinion and if you wanted that, you could call the average “friend” on Facebook.

$127,000 a second—that’s one they’ll remember. Stop settling for vaguely scary numbers. Start comparing numbers to things everybody understands. There’s such a payoff.

Addendum (11/20/2013): As it happens, one month ago, the New York Times ombudsman picked up on this problem: David Leonhardt, the paper’s Washington bureau chief,

agrees that there is a problem, and told me that the Times is already working on a solution. A small group of editors is “thinking through a whole set of issues about how we present numbers,” he told me. The results, he said, will probably be determined within a couple of months. They might take the form of new entries to the stylebook, announcements within newsroom departments or emails laying out new guidelines to the whole news staff.

“The readers are right,” he told me. “We should do better.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that “the human mind isn’t equipped” to deal with very large numbers. When people see these numbers, he said, they read it as “a lot of money” or “a really big number.”

One answer, as many have suggested, is expressing individual budget figures—consistently—as a percentage of the whole. Another, he said, is in making comparisons. For example, he said, a $10 billion figure might be put in context by comparing it with other costs, like the annual defense and Social Security budgets.

Addendum (12/8/2013): Here's a good video from BuzzFeed that contextualizes 12 big numbers about Amazon:

Addendum (8/19/2014): Let’s keep this thread going. Here’s another example, from Derek Thompson:

1. According to a McKinsey Global Institute paper, email consumes an average of 13 hours per week.

2. Email consumes 28% of the average workweek.

3. For every hour of work, we spend 17 minutes on email.

4. The typical “knowledge” worker—that is, somebody whose professional output is creative—earns $75,000 a year. Thus, the time spent on reading and answering email costs a company $20,990 per worker per year. Hence Thompson’s headline:

Typical White-Collar Worker Is Paid $21,000 a Year to Be on Email.”